The Art of Solitude
By Stephen Batchelor
There is more to solitude than just being alone. True solitude is a way of being that needs to be cultivated. You cannot switch it on or off at will. Solitude is an art. Mental training is needed to refine and stabilize it. When you practice solitude, you dedicate yourself to the care of the soul.
For those who have rejected religion in favor of secular humanism, the notion of solitude may imply self-indulgence, navel-gazing, or solipsism. Inevitably, some may be drawn to solitude as a way of escaping responsibility and avoiding relationships. But for many it provides the time and space to develop the inner calm and autonomy needed to engage effectively and creatively with the world. Moments of quiet contemplation, whether before a work of art or while observing your breath, allow you to rethink what your life is about and reflect on what matters most for you. Solitude is not a luxury for the leisured few. It is an inescapable dimension of being human. Whether we are devout believers or devout atheists, in solitude we confront and explore the same existential questions.
My accounts in this book of ingesting psychedelics in shamanic ceremonies should not be taken as a blanket endorsement of their use. I am describing a journey rooted in my own personal and cultural history that may or may not be pertinent to the reader.
Most Buddhists, moreover, would regard taking peyote and ayahuasca as an infraction of the moral precept against intoxicants and thus incompatible with the practice of the dharma. A principal motive in writing The Art of Solitude has been to try to find a more constructive way of talking about the contentious issue of drugs in our highly medicated society. As the current opioid epidemic in the United States illustrates, both secular and religious institutions struggle to find ways to respond intelligently and compassionately to this crisis. Rather than basing a response on the binary opposition between indulgence (bad) and abstinence (good), we need a more informed and nuanced under- standing of how to use substances that modify human awareness, feeling, and behavior. By framing the use of psychedelics within the practice of solitude, I seek to integrate it into a broader cultural discourse that includes meditation, therapy, philosophy, religion, and art.
This book grew out of my wanderings, explorations, and studies but was shaped by my twenty-year practice of making collages from found materials. Wherever I go, I collect discarded scraps of paper, cloth, and plastic, which I glue onto card stock, then cut up and organize into square mosaics. This process transforms random bits of rubbish into artworks structured by formal rules decided on in advance, making each collage a combination of chance and order. The Art of Solitude has been conceived and executed in a similar way. While writing I have borne in mind the strict metric structure of the Four Eights as well as the chaotic organization of Montaigne’s Essays, both of which have inspired the form of this book.
Excerpted from The Art of Solitude by Stephen Batchelor, Copyright © 2020. Excerpted by permission of Yale University Press. All rights reserved.
Stephen Batchelor is a teacher and scholar of Buddhism. He is the author of numerous works, including Buddhism Without Beliefs, Living with the Devil, Confession of a Buddhist Atheist, Secular Buddhism, and After Buddhism. He lives in La Sauve, France.